Holiday greeting loud and clear

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

December 29, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

Military personnel deployed to bases abroad, fighting in Iraq, or assigned to state-side military installations have it a little easier today when it comes to keeping in touch with the folks back home because of e-mail and cell phones.

State-of-the-art communications technology has changed everything.

During World War II, however, those fighting in the European and Pacific theaters informed their loved ones state-side of their activities via V-Mail, or Victory-Mail, as it was called, that always arrived with a black stamp reading: "Passed By Military Censor."

In order to provide Baltimoreans and Marylanders serving in the military with news from the home front, The Sun established the Service Sun in June 1942, which was printed in The Sunday Sun, and mailed by friends and relatives.

During the summer of 1943, when Paul Patterson, president of the A.S. Abell Co., visited England, Sun war correspondent Lee McCardell, assigned to the 29th Division, suggested a wartime Christmas broadcast back to the States.

After Patterson returned to Baltimore, he put McCardell, an absolute novice when it came to radio, in charge of planning the one-hour trans-Atlantic holiday broadcast.

It wasn't long before he found himself drowning in myriad problems that arose in dealing with the British Broadcasting Corp., the military, cable companies, and Western Union.

McCardell was assisted in this executive-ordered enterprise by two other Sun correspondents in England, Holbrook Bradley, and Thomas O'Neill, head of the newspaper's London bureau.

Nine radio stations in Maryland - including local station WFBR - were joined by stations in Virginia and Pennsylvania for the Christmas Day broadcast that was to air at 5:45 p.m. British War Time, which was 12:45 p.m. Eastern War Time, from an 8th Air Force base "somewhere in England."

Tensions mounted as the clock ticked toward airtime.

Hollywood movie star Ben Lyon, an Army Air Forces colonel who was married to legendary film star Bebe Daniels, hosted the show. He found himself "standing on his head waving for silence," McCardell wrote in an article about the broadcast published in The Sun in January 1944.

"I have vague recollections of having run up and down long corridors, tripping over miles of electric cable, shoving people into strange rooms and closing doors on them," McCardell wrote. "It was a madhouse. Engineers on telephones swearing at London, London swearing back over that last lost cue and insisting that they had faded things to cover up nicely. At 1725 [military time] I died."

Whatever acidosis McCardell might have experienced, the broadcast was an unqualified success back home, brightening many a heart worn weary by war and separation, as families gathered around radios hoping they might hear the voice of their loved ones.

The day after the broadcast, The Sun published a lengthy transcript from the show.

The family of Sgt. James Bartlett, a B&O brakeman in civilian life and former Towson resident, who had served in England for 16 months as an armorer, contrasted Christmas at home and in England.

"We'd be having turkey for dinner, probably a wild turkey that either Dad or I shot with the old squirrel rifle. And there'd be a little brown jug, too," he said.

The Heuisler family gathered in their home at 100 St. Albans Way in Homeland, heard Kitty Heuisler, daughter and sister, who was serving with the Red Cross in England, explain that she was working "on a doughnut wagon."

Asked if she would have rather been in Baltimore for Christmas, she replied, "Well, this is my job over here. I asked for it, so I can't complain. But, of course, everybody would like to be home for Christmas Day," she said.

Mr. and Mrs. Edward Schoonfield of Mount Washington, whose son, Capt. Charles Schoolfield had led the air raid on Schweinfurt and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, told the newspaper after hearing their son: "It was as if our boy had dropped in to see us, and it was the grandest Christmas present."

Capt. Thomas Van Arden Dukehart couldn't participate in the broadcast but had a proxy, Sgt. Charles Irwin of Bel Air, sing a song he had written, "My Postman's the Man in the Moon," to his wife, who was listening at her parents' home on Longwood Road in Roland Park.

Lt. William F. Hickey of South Smallwood Street, a bombardier who had completed five missions over Germany, said, "I'd rather be in Baltimore than over Wilhelmshaven. On Christmas Eve, our whole family used to go to St. Martin's. St. Martin's is a West Baltimore landmark like H.L. Mencken. I went to school there, too."

Lt. Woodrow Wilson Thomas, a resident of 504 Harwood Ave., took advantage of the show to announce publicly his engagement to Miss Rita Hilliard, an employee of The Sun, who was at work and didn't hear the airborne promise of marriage.

Near the end of the broadcast, Sgt. J. Preston McComas of Bel Air sang "White Christmas."

On the drive back to London, McCardell told Lyon he felt the broadcast had been a disaster.

"Ben didn't say much, except he felt five years older than he had that Christmas morning. I felt a hundred and five," McCardell wrote.

After sharing Christmas dinner with the Lyons, McCardell wrote that he quaffed "too many drinks while crying on the incomparable Bebe's shoulder."

It turned out that he had worried needlessly. At the conclusion of the show, The Sun's switchboard was jammed with thankful callers.

Several days passed before a cable finally arrived from Baltimore filled with praise from Patterson, Neil H. Swanson, executive editor of the Sunpapers, and Harry C. Black, chairman of the board.

"You can have your radio. I never want to have anything to do with it again," McCardell wrote. "Please God: I'm just a reporter."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Find previous columns at baltimoresun.com/backstory.

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